Inbee Park eyes major at St. Andrews
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The clock says it is nearing 10 p.m. on a cool summer night in St. Andrews, but it is obvious there is enough light to complete a hole or two more of golf.
Golfers are carrying their own bags and walking along the street in front of the Dunvegan Hotel, where patrons of the bar and restaurant think nothing of this practice. Golf is a way of life in this town, and it is quite common to see them traipsing along the various roads, golf bag over their shoulder, having just completed a round at one of three links that start and end among the people.
The Old Course is where it all began, where many believe the game's origins took their root. If not, then the place is certainly golf's spiritual home, with a huge link to its history.
So it is only fitting that South Korea's Inbee Park attempt to make a bit of her own at the home of golf.
The LPGA star has won the year's first three major championships and goes for a fourth straight -- Grand Slam or not -- when the Ricoh Women's British Open is played on the storied links.
While the Open Championship has been played at the Old Course more than any other venue -- 28 in all -- this will be just the second time the women will contest the championship on the links, and it only seems appropriate that such a historic achievement potentially play out at such a famous place.
But what makes it so special?
"You've got to look deeply there," said two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington. "It would be very easy to see a rugged piece of land and ... no, it wouldn't be considered beautiful. But then you get out there and play it, and it's fascinating. I'm sure there's many professional golfers who won't appreciate it, who can't understand it at all."
The Old Course is not visually appealing, not in the sense of a Pebble Beach or Turnberry or numerous other venues with watery vistas. Aside from the first tee and 18th green, which are part of the town and mere yards from streets and businesses, the course can appear rather bland.
It has its double greens and various landmarks such as the Road Hole and Hell Bunker and the Valley of Sin, but it is not hard by the sea nor is it lush or scenic. Water rarely comes into play.
But all the greats of the game -- save for Ben Hogan, who famously never visited St. Andrews -- have played and competed on the course, walked over the Swilcan Bridge, taken in the aura.
Jack Nicklaus has often told the story of his trip to the 1959 Walker Cup at Muirfield when his father, Charlie, and a group of friends ventured over to St. Andrews. They returned less than impressed, but that didn't sway the Golden Bear's opinion when he saw the course for the first time at the 1964 Open won by Tony Lema.
"I didn't know what to expect," said Nicklaus, who won at the Old Course in 1970 and 1978. "I walked in and I saw what was there. I was a kid. I saw this stuff, thought it was kind of neat, looked at the history, what they did, and it withstood the test of time. I fell in love with it on day one.
"I went back to my dad and said, 'Dad, better reevaluate this, because this is a pretty neat place.' And he fell in love with it, too, because I played well and he followed and he finally came back to understand it."
During a recent visit, one of St. Andrews' caddies pointed out a very simple truth -- all the trouble is on the right. For right-handed slicers, that is not a good thing, because basically the entire way around the course, you are trying to avoid missing to the right.
But for the most skilled players, staying closer to the right invites a better angle to the pin. Hitting way to the left or even to the middle of the fairway -- away from the trouble -- typically produces the worst angle to the pin. And therein lies the genius of the place.
"You're underwhelmed typically the first time you walk out there in a lot of ways," said 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman. "There are some things that are pretty extraordinary. The Road Hole, the Hell Bunker. But the first time you go around, it's 'Yeah, it's cool, but not sure I get it yet.'
"I think playing in a tournament, you begin to realize. You start to understand the strategy of the course, playing with the wind, against it. Playing to the middle of the course leaves you with such bad angles to the pin. It's hard to go low playing it safe."
The Old Course remains a public place, declared so by an Act of Parliament more than 30 years ago. They close it on Sundays so people can have their run of the ancient grounds. On other days, anyone with a certified handicap can tee it up, although they might have to jump through a few hoops to first get a starting time. Amazingly, residents of the town pay an annual fee of £200 -- about $320 -- for access to all of the St. Andrews Links Trust courses. Visitors to the area would spend that playing the Old Course with a caddie just once.
The Ricoh Women's British Open is relatively new, especially compared to the men's version, first starting in 1976 but having some financial difficulties along the way. It did not become an LPGA Tour event until 1994 and was not designated a major until 2001.
It was then that the tournament started to move to some venerable venues, including sites played by the men such as Royal Birkdale, Turnberry and Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Logistics made it difficult to match up the Old Course with the Women's Open. The St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages the course as well as six others around St. Andrews, did not want to stage a Women's Open in the year before or after the men. So 2007 became the first opportunity for St. Andrews. And 2013 is three years after the last men's Open and two years prior to the next.
The Old Course has evolved over centuries, considered the game's birthplace some 500 years ago. It is where 22 original holes were built, scaled back to what is now the regulation 18 in 1764. It is where the rules of golf were tinkered with, where gutta percha balls were first produced. And it is also where Tom Morris Sr. spent most of his life.
Morris left a huge imprint on the game, helping to devise the first metal cups for firming up the hole; learning how sand, scattered over bare spots, helped the growth of grass; laying out golf courses across the British Isles (for the fee of £1 per day, plus expenses), including Muirfield, Carnoustie and Royal Dornoch. And he was a fine player, winning the Open Championship four times.
"He was there just at the right time," said David Joy, a St. Andrews historian and author. "You're talking about a life span that ranged from starting your career as a feather golf ball maker, through the gutta percha ball, to seeing trains link up the links land to the seaside courses, to playing in the first Opens, to winning it, to being the custodian of the [St. Andrews] links for nearly 40 years. He was involved in the major changes that occurred during the evolution of the game. It's unusual for a man to live to 86 at that time. He lived through some stunning changes."
Morris was laid to rest at a burial ground just down the road from the Old Course that is part of the remains of the St. Andrews Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1559. Two other Open champions were buried there -- Morris' son, Tom Jr., who also won the championship four times, and Willie Auchterlonie -- as well as the game's first true golf professional, Allan Robertson, the first person on record to break 80 in an 18-hole round.
If today's players are so inclined, they can take in plenty of history, golf and otherwise.
Inbee Park might be a bit too busy for that, however. She's looking to add to St. Andrews' lore.